Tenko follows the harrowing ordeal endured by a group of British, Australian and Dutch women who were captured after the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1941 and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Created by Lavinia Warner, it is considered one of the best dramas the BBC has ever produced, not afraid to deal with the most hard-hitting issues facing those brave women and featuring outstanding performances from its cast.
Fall of Singapore
The backdrop of Tenko is the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1941. When the British Empire ruled the waves importing spices from the east, we used this haven as a strategic trading outpost along the spice route. A century later, it had become one of the most important commercial and military centres of the British Empire.
Seeing the potential of capturing this jewel in the British crown, the Japanese successfully invade, causing many British nationals to flee the city. One ship however, which is bound for Australia with a smattering of refugees on board, is torpedoed and sinks in the Java Sea. The survivors make it to the nearest beach, but are soon captured and imprisoned.
With no clean water and little more than rice and water for the inmates to eat and drink, conditions in the prison camp are harsh. It is not long before disease and illness such as Malaria starts to become rife. Overseeing these appalling conditions is camp Commandant Yamauchi, whose traditional Japanese views cause him to regarded the inmates as "fourth class women".
Things are made worse by his sadistic deputy, Lieutenant Sato, dubbed "Satan" by the inmates. However, even amongst the inmates there is internal tension, with particular antagonism between the Dutch and the English, mainly because the Dutch were allowed to bring in many more possessions than the English.
"Tenko" is the Japanese word for Roll Call, where prisoners were counted and part of the procedure included the obligatory "bow" to the Japanese masters. However it's also rather appropriate as the series is a role call of an exceptionally talented ensemble cast.
Notable performances come from Stephanie Beacham as elegant snob Rose Millar; Louise Jameson as tarty Londoner Blanche Simmons; Stephanie Cole as stoic doctor Beatrice Mason; mother and daughter Judith and Debbie Bowen, played by Ann Queensberry and Karin Foley; and Patricia Lawrence as Sister Ulrica, the Dutch Consultor to the St. Theresa Mission.
It's also worth mentioning the terrific performances by the Japanese officials in the camp, particularly Burt Kwouk, who up until Tenko was best known for being thrown around the room by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films. However, his chilling turn as Capt. Yamauchi couldn't be further from that of Clouseau's faithful manservant!
First broadcast in 1981 on BBC One, Tenko was praised for its bold storytelling, and is an excellent example of great plot lines and superb acting overcoming a limited budget. In fact, its modest production values meant that only the first two episodes were filmed on location in Singapore; the majority of the series, based in the camp, was filmed in a specially built set in Dorset!
The series lasted for three series, following the women in their varying lives before the Japanese invasion and their imprisonment, through to the inmates being moved to different camps. The third and final series ends with the return of Singapore to British control at the end of the war and the surviving POW's finding it just as difficult to return to civilian life as they had done adapting to becoming prisoners.
Although not based on an actual camp, the story of Tenko is taken from real-life accounts from women prisoners during World War II. Apart from adding greater weight to the storylines, this also revealed to the British public the sometimes-horrific ordeals that these women had to endure.
Ultimately Tenko is an interesting fusion of historical drama and soap opera. The startling indifference of the British government to their plight shows the dated and disrespectful view of women in British society, but the focus of the series is on the more personal aspects of living in the camp.
This includes the sensitive but frank handling of issues such as rape, stillbirth, lesbianism, suicide, abortion and euthanasia, all taking place within the context of 1940's morality.